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LAURENCE REES: To what extent were the decisions that emerged from the Yalta conference a betrayal of the very ideals that the West was supposed to be fighting the war for?

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: Well, it was a moral betrayal and a huge disappointment morally, but great affairs of the world and of armies and empires are not necessarily about moral equality, they’re about priorities and choices and there simply was no choice. Nazi Germany was our first enemy, destroying Hitler was our first priority, and actually rightly so, because, after all, the Soviet Union never actually turned on the West except after 1920 when it was defeated at the battle of Warsaw. They never did invade Europe, after Stalin, up until 1991.

It turned out to be a very conservative empire. It was ruthlessly repressive to its own people, but actually if you look at the long term it was the right decision to fight the Nazis who were threatening everybody, and who actually were set on world domination, whereas the Russians weren’t in the same way. But there was another decision which was that we simply couldn’t afford to fight another war, and that’s what it would have taken, and Stalin was very realistic about this. He was such a realist; he said to Molotov the fact is that it doesn’t matter what we agree with these people, the fact is that it’s the person whose army gets there first who will impose their own system, that was it, and that was the reality. So to undo that would have taken a Western military will and a Western aggression of an enormous scale, and that was unthinkable at Yalta in early 1945.

LAURENCE REES: But when you talk to Poles, they say in what sense was the war won for us, because at the end of the war we swapped one hideous tyrant for another hideous tyrant?

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: Yes, and it’s impossible to answer them. I mean, they’re essentially right, but it’s just that statesmanship is about - and war especially is about - priorities and choices. There only are so many resources. And there is only is so much will in public opinion, especially when you have these democracies.

LAURENCE REES: But don’t you think that with Yalta there’s something else going on, other than just a sense of the harsh political reality of it all?

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: I think there are two things going on there. First of all there is the popular view; like you can’t, in a war, have these kinds of shades of grey, it’s absolutely impossible. And when you’re fighting a war and actually asking people to make great sacrifices on the home front as well as at the [battle] Front you simply can’t say that we’re doing it all for a mass murdering tyrant. But also I think people really believed that Russia was their friend and that Russia was Stalin, and I think people forget very quickly what’s happened, and of course everyone knew about the great terror and all the things that the communists had done, but actually the proof that we have now wasn’t available then and so it was possible to say that there was some sort of doubt about it. Of course, well-informed people knew all about it.

LAURENCE REES: But just six months before Yalta, Stalin had shown, at the time of the Warsaw uprising, that he was content to let the Polish Home Army be massacred by the Germans. Churchill knows this, and yet in October 1944 he visits Stalin and in essence splits Eastern Europe up between them. 



SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: Yes. I think the other thing is with the leadership, on one side is the propaganda, which had to be black or white, but I think the other thing is that the leadership became fond of Stalin, weirdly, and there’s now evidence of that in the new papers that are coming out on Churchill, and especially in the stuff that Roosevelt was saying. And I think with all these world leaders you have this kind of vanity. Churchill and Roosevelt, two of the greatest leaders we’ve ever had certainly suffered from this as well, with the vanity that they alone could make deals with people, they alone could turn people, and Roosevelt especially felt that he was the ultimate manipulator. But, of course, he was wrong. He’d met the ultimate manipulator, who was on another scale altogether, and so they were taken for a ride in that sense. I think they did come to believe that Stalin was different or had changed or something.